Eva Clarke weighed only three pounds when she was born in Mauthausen Concentration Camp on April 29, 1945. Had her mother, Anka, arrived at Mauthausen just a few days earlier, neither she nor Eva would have lived. But by the time she arrived, the Nazis had run out of gas, and the Americans liberated the camp on May 5, 1945, just a few days after Anka gave birth to Eva.


Born Survivors

Anka grew up in Trebehovice pod Orebem, a small town in Czechoslovakia. Her father owned a small leather factory. Neither she nor her family believed that they could be affected by what was happening in Nazi Germany. This changed after Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. From this point onwards, anti-Jewish laws were implemented in the country. But Anka was not easily cowed; one of the anti-Semitic laws that most upset her was that Jews were banned from going to the cinema. One day, she decided to take her chances and went to see a film. The Nazis did enter the cinema to ensure there were no Jews there. But, to Anka’s amazement, they stopped their inspection in the row just in front of her and left. Over the next three and a half years, Anka would spend time in Terezin, Auschwitz, Freiberg and, finally, Mauthausen. Anka’s story, along with the similar experiences of two other pregnant women (Priska and Rachel) has now been documented by Wendy Holden in her book Born Survivors.

Eva now works with the Holocaust Educational Trust and has given talks all around the world. I start by asking her what made her want to tell her mother’s story. She says she feels that it is the duty of survivors to tell their stories if they feel able to, because it is, as she puts it, a way of making the history come alive’.

She worries that today young people do not know as much about the Holocaust as they should. Even though Holocaust education is compulsory in British state schools, she is surprised by how ignorant many young people are. One survey suggested that 34 per cent of the young people surveyed wrongly thought that the Holocaust triggered Britain’s entry into the war. Additionally, 55 per cent thought that the killing took place in Germany, rather than in German-occupied Poland. ‘That always comes as such a surprise’, she says. ‘You’d speak to hundreds and hundreds of students … and then to learn that an awful lot of students don’t know about it … it comes as a bit of a shock’.

Eva is particularly saddened by how little many Americans know. She has given talks at American air force bases in the UK. ‘I always get very sentimental and tearful when I talk to American soldiers because it was they who liberated my mother, … and the younger people just haven’t got a clue … I assumed younger American soldiers would have to know the name Mauthausen … but they don’t’.

Romanticising the Holocaust 

The way in which the Holocaust has been portrayed in literature and film has sometimes caused controversy. For example, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne, which is widely read in schools, has been criticised for being unrealistic. It tells the story of the young son of a concentration camp commander, who makes friends with a Jewish boy in Auschwitz. But it has been pointed out that this could never have happened because children were sent straight to the gas chambers, so the two boys would never have met in real life. Eva agrees that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as well as the film Life is Beautiful are ‘based on a false premise’. However, she does not believe these books and films are necessarily an obstacle to educating people about the Holocaust. ‘Through fiction, you can begin to tell the story to people … it is a way to reach children’. But she adds, ‘you have to make sure the children understand what is fiction, and what actually happened’.

A History of Genocides

There have been multiple genocides since 1945. As we speak, Uyghurs are believed to be held in internment camps by the Chinese government. I ask Eva if she thinks humanity has learned from the Holocaust. ‘No, I don’t’, she replies bluntly. ‘At the end of my talks … I list the genocides since [the Holocaust] … Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, Myanmar and now the Uyghurs’.

Eva says that sometimes her mother would ask her if what she does (educating people about the Holocaust) has any impact. Eva would tell her: ‘I have no idea … but if it makes one student change their mind … then it’s worth it’. ‘Even if you don’t know what impact you might have, that’s no reason for not trying’, she adds.

Interestingly, Eva thinks social media has made things much harder for genocidal regimes. ‘It was all very secret, what was happening in the camps … my parents had no idea … they had no idea what Auschwitz was … Nowadays, news gets out’, she reflects. We have some idea of the human rights abuses against Uyghurs precisely because of social media.

Growing anti-Semitism

In recent years we have seen anti-Semitism grow on both the Right and the Left. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has used anti-Semitic propaganda; anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are rife amongst far-right groups in America, and the Labour Party in the UK was recently investigated for its failure to deal with anti-Jewish racism. This worries Eva greatly. ‘I think [anti-Semitism] is [on the rise] and I think it’s extremely worrying’. She says that Holocaust survivors and historians ‘have always thought that through education this would always be counteracted’, but they are now wondering why it hasn’t worked.

It is hard to feel optimistic. As I write, the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan, with women, girls and the Hazara people fearing for their lives and livelihoods. The only source of hope is that people like Eva remain determined to educate others about what racism and prejudice have done to people in the past, and what they could still do in the future.